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College By the Numbers
by Frank H.T. Rhodes

Frank H.T. Rhodes is president emeritus of Cornell University.
This opinion piece appeared in The New York Times, December 24, 1999.

When I was provost of the University of Michigan, the medical school had a student prize for medical diagnosis: the S.S.W. Award. The initials stood for “swift, sure and wrong.” I am reminded of it when I hear reports celebrating Texas’s “10 percent solution”—its experiment in maintaining diversity in its public universities by guaranteeing admission for every student graduating in the top 10 percent of any high school in the state.

Attracted though we are to swift and simple solutions to national problems, this route to expanding educational opportunity for underrepresented minorities should be avoided by any university that has better choices.

Texas adopted the 10 percent solution only after an unfortunate federal court decision banned the traditional affirmative action policies its university had used successfully for years. California followed, taking up a 4 percent rule after a voter referendum forced it, too, to abandon affirmative action. These guarantees may well be the best these states can do to help their universities maintain the diversity that prepares students best to participate in a pluralistic society.

But now Florida, with no constraint except the threat of a state referendum, has replaced affirmative action with a variation—a 20 percent admissions system—and other states will likely consider similar schemes.

The excitement over the simplicity of the 10 percent solution should not blind us to its liabilities. In the admissions process itself, the policy penalizes students at a state’s more demanding secondary schools, where those in, say, the second decile are often better equipped for college than those in the top 10 percent at other schools. And, by encouraging admission of less able students into more selective institutions, it may leave them struggling for survival in classes more difficult than they have been prepared to handle.

In high schools, the prOmise of automatic admission may be an incentive to some students to work hard, but others will be discouraged from taking the extra-hard course or enrolling in the more demanding high school for fear of jeopardizing a high class rank. Consider, too, that the 10 percent solution’s very success at assuring minority enrollment depends in large part on continuing de facto segregation of Texas high schools. Is that a situation we should seek to perpetuate?

At the university level, public education itself stands to be harmed as the great public institutions run the risk of becoming less competitive with the strongest private schools. The 10 percent solution does nothing, either, to address the vital question of minority balance in graduate, medical, law and other professional schools.

For all its simplicity and attractiveness, the 10 percent solution is race-blind at the price of being individual-blind. A quota system, however well intended, and a numerically based admissions system, however well conceived, deny the significance and priority of individuality, in all its bewildering complexity. That is a terrible price to pay.

“A university,” John Henry Newman once wrote, “is not a foundry, or a mint, or a treadmill. . .but an alma mater, knowing her children one by one.” One by one, person by person: that is the basis for educational success. It is also the basis for a free society: we should not lightly abandon it for a system which, however swift, however simple, not only judges individuals by numbers, but uses numbers as ambiguous as those of class standing. Even in an age bedazzled by ranking, surely we can do better than that.

Why not base admissions decisions on an assessment of the student as a whole person, with honest regard for race and ethnicity as two attributes among many others—scholastic promise, analytical skills, comprehension, test scores, grades, essay quality, creativity, artistic and musical ability, athletic skills, community service, leadership ability, motivation, success in dealing with adversity, teacher assessment, career objectives, geographic origin, economic background, interview performance and more? That is the practice explicitly upheld by the Supreme Court in the 1978 University of California v. Bakke decision, and most of our states are free to continue to use it. Unless and until it is overturned, we should stick with it. It has served us well.



Questions? Comments? Please send e-mail to diversitymatters@umich.edu.
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